What Is Prior Knowledge and Why it Matters?

12 views 9:08 am 0 Comments December 23, 2023
Prior Knowledge

Prior knowledge is one of the key concept in educational research that fundamentally reshape our understanding of how learning occurs. This term refers to the pre-existing cognitive framework that each student brings into the learning environment, encompassing everything from factual information to deeply ingrained skills and misconceptions.

As we delve into this topic, it’s important to consider the nuanced ways in which this prior knowledge influences learning processes, shapes student engagement, and ultimately impacts academic achievement.

As an educational researcher and former teacher, my interest in this topic is driven by a desire to uncover how we can harness this understanding of prior knowledge to enhance teaching methodologies and create more effective, engaging, and inclusive learning experiences

In this post, we will delve into the intricacies of prior knowledge, guided by significant research findings, discuss some of its types and examples, and explore how this understanding can transform educational practices. For practical ways of how to assess prior knowledge in your classroom, check out our post “20 Ways to Assess Prior Knowledge“.

Types of Prior Knowledge

In their research paper titled “Assessing prior knowledge types as predictors of academic achievement in the introductory phase of biology and physics study programmes using logistic regression“, Torsten Binder et al., discuss two main types of prior knowledge which I want to draw your attention to: declarative prior knowledge and procedural prior knowledge.

1. Declarative Prior Knowledge

Declarative prior knowledge refers to the ‘what’ of learning—it’s the factual information and concepts that students bring to a new learning situation. This includes specific facts, theories, and principles that they have learned in past educational experiences or through personal pursuits. For instance, in a science class, a student’s understanding of the basic structure of an atom or the fundamental laws of physics constitutes their declarative prior knowledge. This type of knowledge is crucial as it forms the foundational base upon which new, more complex ideas are built. In teaching, tapping into students’ declarative knowledge helps in creating connections with new concepts, making learning more relatable and easier to absorb.

2. Procedural Prior Knowledge

Procedural prior knowledge, on the other hand, involves the ‘how’—the skills and processes that students have learned and can apply. This includes methods, techniques, and procedures for doing things, ranging from solving mathematical problems to conducting scientific experiments.

For example, in mathematics, a student’s ability to apply the quadratic formula to solve equations is a form of procedural knowledge. This type of knowledge is dynamic and context-dependent, often demonstrated through action. It’s vital for educators to understand and build upon this knowledge, as it enables students to apply what they’ve learned in practical, real-world situations, thus deepening their understanding and fostering higher-order thinking skills.

What is Prior Knowledge?

Prior knowledge refers to the pre-existing understanding, beliefs, skills, and experiences that individuals bring to a new learning situation. It encompasses a broad range of cognitive elements, from concrete facts and information to abstract concepts and procedural skills, along with personal interpretations and misconceptions. This knowledge base, formed through previous educational encounters, personal experiences, and cultural background, significantly influences how learners perceive, process, and integrate new information.

In the context of education, prior knowledge acts as a lens through which new concepts are viewed, interpreted, and assimilated, playing a crucial role in shaping learning outcomes, engagement with new material, and the overall educational experience. Understanding and effectively leveraging this aspect of cognition is vital for educators in creating effective, responsive, and inclusive teaching strategies that build upon what learners already know and guide them towards deeper understanding and higher levels of academic achievement.

Examples of Prior Knowledge

Prior knowledge can manifest in various forms, depending on the context and the individual’s previous experiences. Here are ten examples of prior knowledge in a classroom or teaching context, illustrating how students’ pre-existing knowledge influences their learning experiences:



  1. Familiarity with Text Genres: In a literature class, students who are already familiar with different genres of writing, like poetry, fiction, or drama, can more easily understand and analyze new literary works within these genres.
  2. Basic Geometry in Math: In a high school geometry class, students use their prior knowledge of basic shapes and measurements acquired in earlier grades to understand more complex geometric concepts and theorems.
  3. Historical Context in Social Studies: When discussing the Civil Rights Movement in a history class, students draw on their prior knowledge of earlier historical events like slavery and the American Civil War to better understand the context and significance of this movement.
  4. Language Rules in Foreign Language Classes: In learning a new language, students rely on their understanding of grammar, sentence structure, and vocabulary from their native language to grasp similar concepts in the new language.
  5. Previous Science Experiments: In a science lab, students use their experience from previous experiments – understanding of the scientific method, hypothesis testing, and basic laboratory safety – to conduct more complex experiments.
  6. Prior Reading in English Classes: Students who have previously read certain books or authors can bring deeper insights into discussions and analyses in English classes, especially when comparing themes or writing styles.
  7. Elementary Mathematics in Advanced Math Classes: In advanced math classes, students’ understanding of elementary concepts like multiplication tables and basic algebra is crucial for grasping higher-level concepts like calculus or trigonometry.
  8. Previous Writing Experience: Students use their prior experience with writing essays, reports, and narratives to tackle more advanced writing assignments, understanding structure, thesis development, and argumentation.
  9. Knowledge of Historical Figures in History Classes: When learning about a specific period in history, students’ prior knowledge about key historical figures from that era helps them understand the broader political, social, and cultural context.
  10. Familiarity with Scientific Concepts: In a biology class, students’ prior knowledge of basic cell structure and function from earlier grades assists them in understanding more complex topics like genetics or human anatomy.

In each of these scenarios, the teacher can build upon the students’ existing knowledge to introduce new concepts, making the learning process more efficient and engaging. Recognizing and tapping into this prior knowledge is a key aspect of effective teaching, helping to bridge new information with what students already understand and know.

Prior Knowledge: What Does the Research Say?

In the realm of educational studies, the concept of prior knowledge takes on various dimensions, as illustrated in a range of research papers. For instance, the work of Cordova et al., (2014) in “Confidence in prior knowledge, self-efficacy, interest and prior knowledge: Influences on conceptual change” sheds light on prior knowledge as what students bring into the learning environment – a mix of accurate scientific understanding and misconceptions about a specific topic.

This study delves into how such knowledge, coupled with students’ confidence in their understanding, self-efficacy, and interest, plays a pivotal role in conceptual change learning. It brings to the forefront the idea that students’ existing ideas, particularly when they are confident in them, can significantly influence their engagement with new information, potentially creating a barrier or a catalyst for embracing new concepts.

Similarly, in the paper “Additional training opportunities restore sleep-associated memory benefits under conditions of low prior knowledge” by Maren J. Cordi, Thomas Schreiner, and Björn Rasch (2023), prior knowledge is seen as a pre-existing understanding that influences memory consolidation during sleep. This study highlights how prior knowledge aids the encoding process and potentially impacts memory consolidation, especially during sleep.

The researchers found that the level of prior knowledge significantly influences sleep-mediated memory benefits, as seen in the differential learning outcomes between German and French speakers learning Dutch. The study suggests that where prior knowledge is lacking, increased memory strength through additional learning can compensate, underscoring the complex interplay between prior knowledge, memory strength, and sleep in memory formation.

Furthermore, the research by Torsten Binder and colleagues in “Assessing prior knowledge types as predictors of academic achievement in the introductory phase of biology and physics study programmes using logistic regression” examines the impact of different types of prior knowledge on academic achievement in biology and physics.

They categorize prior knowledge into declarative and procedural types, assessing their influence on students’ success in university science courses. Their findings indicate that a deep understanding of principles and concepts in biology and both conceptual understanding and problem-solving skills in physics are critical for academic success.

From my perspective, as an educational researcher and former teacher, these studies collectively underscore the significance of understanding students’ prior knowledge in the educational process. It’s evident that prior knowledge is not just a static backdrop but a dynamic factor that interacts with various elements of the learning process.

This understanding is crucial for designing curricula and teaching strategies that cater to diverse learning needs, aiming to reduce dropout rates and enhance academic success, particularly in challenging fields like science. These insights are invaluable for educators and researchers striving to optimize learning experiences, considering the nuanced interplay of prior knowledge with other cognitive and psychological factors.

Final thoughts

Reflecting on the wealth of research surrounding prior knowledge, it’s clear that this aspect of learning is not just an addendum to the educational narrative but a central theme that deserves our full attention. The studies we’ve discussed reveal a rich tapestry of insights, illustrating how the knowledge and skills students bring to their learning environments significantly shape their academic journeys.

The implications of these findings are far-reaching for educators and researchers. Firstly, there’s a compelling need to assess and understand the prior knowledge of students at the outset of their learning experiences. This understanding can guide the design of teaching strategies and curricula, ensuring that they are not only relevant but also responsive to the learners’ existing cognitive frameworks.

Moreover, the research highlights the importance of differentiating between declarative and procedural knowledge. Recognizing the unique roles these two types of knowledge play in learning processes enables educators to create more effective and engaging learning experiences. For instance, in subjects like biology and physics, where both conceptual understanding and problem-solving skills are paramount, an integrated approach that nurtures both types of knowledge could be key to enhancing student success.

Additionally, these insights bring to light the importance of addressing misconceptions and building upon what students already know. Educators can use strategies such as scaffolding and inquiry-based learning to connect new concepts to students’ existing knowledge base, thereby facilitating deeper understanding and retention.

From a broader perspective, this discussion about prior knowledge also underscores the need for personalized learning approaches. Each student’s knowledge base is unique, and recognizing this diversity is crucial for fostering an inclusive and effective learning environment. Tailoring instruction to meet individual needs not only respects students’ existing knowledge but also empowers them to build upon it, promoting a more meaningful and engaging learning experience.

References and further readings

  • Binder, T., Sandmann, A., Sures, B. et al. (2019). Assessing prior knowledge types as predictors of academic achievement in the introductory phase of biology and physics study programmes using logistic regression. IJ STEM Ed ,6 (33). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-019-0189-9
  • Cordi, M. J., Schreiner, T., & Rasch, B. (2023). Is prior knowledge essential? Additional training opportunities restore sleep-associated memory benefits under conditions of low prior knowledge. Journal of Sleep Research, 32(4), e13834. https://doi-org.ezproxy.msvu.ca/10.1111/jsr.13834
  • Cordova, J., Sinatra, G. M., Jones, S. H., Taasoobshirazi, G., & Lombardi, D. (2014). Confidence in prior knowledge, self-efficacy, interest and prior knowledge: Influences on conceptual change. Contemporary Educational Psychology 39 (2), 164-174. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2014.03.006
  • Hudson H. T., Rottmann R. M. (1981). Correlation between performance in physics and prior mathematics knowledge. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 18, 291–294.
  • Glaser R. (1984). Education and thinking: The role of knowledge. American Psychologist, 39, 93–104.
  • Thompson, R. A., & Zamboanga, B. L. (2003). Prior Knowledge and Its Relevance to Student Achievement in Introduction to Psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 30(2), 96-101. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15328023TOP3002_02
  • Ton de Jong & Monica G.M. Ferguson-Hessler (1996) Types and qualities of knowledge, Educational Psychologist, 31:2, 105113,  DOI: 10.1207/s15326985ep3102_2

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